CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Dabo Swinney reminded his players late last week not to dwell on things out of their control.
Two big plays by a long, young player helped ninth-ranked Clemson make short work of Virginia in a 59-10 victory Saturday by a team unwilling to give up on its dream.
“You just never know,” quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “If we just go out there and handle our business, do what we’re capable of doing, focusing on what we can, everything will take care of itself.”
Freshman Jayron Kearse, a 6-foot-4 safety steadily building a reputation for big plays, intercepted a pass to set up one touchdown and forced a fumble that led to another as Clemson pried itself from Virginia’s grip with three second-quarter touchdowns.
It was the largest margin of victory in a conference road game since Clemson won here 55-0 in 1984, and the most points on an opponents’ field since the 63-17 win at South Carolina in 2003.
Swinney called it one of the most complete games of the season for Clemson. And, in his final college game in his home state, Boyd said goodbye with flair, completing 24 of 29 passes for 377 of Clemson’s 610 yards and three touchdowns.
An interception and 24 yards in rushing losses on two sacks marred an otherwise solid game, Boyd scored from the 1-yard line with 13 seconds to play in the first half, making the score 28-7 and leaving the outcome in little doubt.
“We’ve not been that nasty team like we were last year,” said Sammy Watkins, who caught 8 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. “This game’s not friendly, so we’re not going to slow down for anybody.”
After a punt to open the second half, Boyd lofted a rainbow to Watkins on third down for a 96-yard touchdown that lifted the Virginia fans out of their seats and into the aisles. It was the second longest play from scrimmage by Clemson players and the second Boyd-to-Watkins of more than 90 yards this season.
“Sometimes you’ve got to kind of throw your arm out, and let him go get it” said Boyd, who missed Watkins short on the interception.
Offense seized the momentum created by a defense that limited Virginia to 277 yards and forced three turnovers, all by first-year players. Other than a 54-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter and 52 to a field goal, Virginia failed to solve the Clemson pressure or its coverage scheme. Virginia quarterbacks completed 19 of 46 passes for 163 yards.
After quarterback David Watford’s six-yard run for his team’s touchdown, Virginia managed 58 yards the remainder of the half. Clemson forced 10 three-and-out series and limited Virginia to 6 of 22 on third down, 2.9 yards per rush.
With the score 14-7 midway through the second quarter, Kearse intercepted Watford at the Clemson 30-yard line and returned it 37 yards. Rod McDowell caught a 10-yard pass from Boyd to make it 21-7 with 4:18 to play.
In Virginia’s subsequent possession, Kearse tackled Khalek Shepherd, who fumbled at midfield. DeShaun Williams recovered and needed 42 seconds to score, with McDowell rushing for the final 25 yards.
When Virginia punted for the sixth time in the half, Clemson had the ball at its 14-yard line with 55 seconds to play. Rather than let the engine idle and the clock expire, Boyd put the pedal to the floor, hitting four receivers in a drive to the 1-yard line. His touchdown with 13 seconds to play was a dagger.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it was vintage Boyd.
“Just reacting and playing,” Morris said, “kind of like last year with LSU when we took it down the field.”
Boyd became the ACC career leader in touchdown responsibility with the first TD to Watkins. His 93 career touchdown passes leave Boyd two short of Philip Rivers’ ACC record.
“At the end of the day, you’ve just got to let it hang out there,” Boyd said. “We’ve only got three games left here in the regular season (so) we just let it all loose.”
With back-to-back road wins, Clemson (8-1, 6-1 ACC) finished its conference road schedule undefeated for the first team in 18 years. Only a Thursday night game with Georgia Tech remains, but a conference championship seems a stretch if not impossible. Virginia (2-7, 0-5) won’t be in the conversation for another year.
“There’s a long list of things that we control, and that’s what we talked about last night,” Swinney said. “Anything can happen, but if you don’t take care of what you control, it doesn’t matter.”